By Peter Friederici
High Country News
Sometime this fall, Mike Nivison plans to take a healthy swig
of water that exemplifies everything you'd expect from a small resort town set
high in a Western mountain range. The water will be cool, clear, refreshing.
But it won't be pristine spring water pouring from some mossy crevice.
Nivison is Cloudcroft's village administrator, and what he
anticipates savouring will come from the village's drinking-water treatment
plant — and, not too long before that, from its sewage treatment facility.
Cloudcroft's will be one of the first wastewater systems in the
United States to allow — or require, depending on your perspective — residents
to drink treated wastewater that hasn't been naturally cleansed in a river or
aquifer. It will be built entirely as a matter of necessity. At an elevation of
more than 8,500 feet in southern New Mexico's Sacramento Mountains, Cloudcroft
is high and, thanks to recent years of drought, dry.
"A city like San Diego can go buy more water," says
Bruce Thomson, a University of New Mexico civil engineer who has been helping
Cloudcroft develop its new water system. "It's expensive, but they can.
But Cloudcroft is simply out of water. Because they're at the top of the
mountain, there's no new place to drill wells. They're at the top of the
watershed. They don't have any other alternatives."
Cloudcroft has only about 750 residents, but its population
swells to a few thousand on summer weekends. All those people escaping the
lowland heat can use more than a third of a million gallons of water on a
single hot Saturday. But the village's major wells produce only about 150,000
gallons a day. To make up the shortfall, village officials have resorted in
recent years to hauling water, which is expensive, inconvenient and
Nivison figured that Cloudcroft's only sure source of what he
calls "wet water" — that is, usable liquid, rather than theoretical
legal rights or hard-to-reach water that might be buried somewhere deep
underground — was right at his feet, in the stream of effluent pouring from the
village's wastewater treatment plant. With several million dollars in state
funding and the help of engineers from two universities and a private firm, the
village has been building a plant to purify that water. After conventional
treatments that settle solids and utilize microbes to degrade or remove
pathogens, the plant will use multiple filtration methods, including reverse
osmosis, to remove chemical contaminants. Then the water will be sent to
covered tanks and mixed with groundwater pumped from the village wells.